Earth vs. Tinariwen: Soundtracks for a Painful World

Earth - "Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light" (Southern Lord, 2011)

The Great Recession and its continuing aftershocks have claimed another casualty recently: my blog. Who has time to listen to music and write about it when you only have a couple of hours to sleep between shifts at work? Today, Labor Day, is a good time to jump back into Pitch Black Brigade because it is a day without work – at least without the kind of labor that pays.

To celebrate the mighty PBB’s return, I plan to do something a little different; I am going to revisit a record I have already reviewed – Earth’s “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, I” (Southern Lord Recordings, 2011) – and pair it with a new and unusual disc – Tinariwen’s “Imidiwan: Companions” (World Village, 2009). I decided to revisit Earth’s record because they are playing at the Earl in East Atlanta next Sunday, September 13th. The title of today’s post is a little misleading, though. I am not going to pit Earth against Tinariwen in a Texas Cage Match (a reference to 1970s pro wrestling and not the Octagon©). Instead I will compare and contrast the two albums because Earth cited Tinariwen as an influence on “Angels of Darkness.”

Some background first. Earth crawled from the speaker-melting, primordial ooze around Olympia, Washington in 1990. At one time they were members of the immortal and outrageous Sub Pop empire and now they serve as one of the pillars of the mighty Southern Lord Recordings. What type of music do they play? Well, Earth created drone metal twenty some odd years ago. They fused the sludge-like doom style of The Melvins with the minimalism of early Black Sabbath riffs and then slowed the tempos to a standstill. In the years since the band’s founding, the personnel has changed frequently but Earth has always played long songs with slow tempos. As I mentioned in my earlier review (which you can read here), Earth’s tempos are slow, really slow – they are glacial, as in the ice ages came and went at a faster rate. Regardless of which permutation of the band you listen to Earth specializes in contemplative songs shot through with an overwhelming sense of impending doom and disintegration.

Tinariwen - "Imidiwan: Companions" (World Village, 2009)

On the other hand, Tinariwen are a Tuareg band, a band from Saharan African. The Tuaregs are nomads from the Sahara desert in Algeria, Mali, Niger and Libya. Drought and war, however, have forced them to abandon their nomadic ways and settle into urban areas. Tinariwen’s name translates into “empty places” and the music they play is called “Tishoumaren” or the “music of the unemployed.” At various times their music has been outlawed in Algeria and Mali because they champion the rights of nomadic people suffering under oppressive, repressive and distant – in geographic terms – regimes. Western music critics usually peg Tinariwen as “desert blues” because they play cycling and circular guitar-based riffs in which minimal additions and subtractions propel the songs along. I think this label is a disservice to the band and to the musical style, because it makes it sound like they heard John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf and decided, “let’s play American blues.” Their music is more organic and homegrown than that. Now, I will concede that Tinariwen are like the blues because they are the soundtrack of a subjected people just like the blues use to be before Cracker beatniks and hippies discovered it in the 1960s.

Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I

There is no easy way to enter an Earth album. You can’t dip your toes in and slowly work you way through it regardless of whether the band was intent on tube blowing feedback and overtones or jazzy Americana sound sculptures. It’s has to be all or nothing – total immersion with full dedication – and “Angels of Light, Demons of Darkness I” is no exception. The first thing that strikes you about Angels is the fact that this not disposable, mass produced music. This album requires commitment, a commitment of time and effort, and like all good art you are rewarded for it as the dense but torpid songs unfurl at a contemplative but disturbing pace.

Earth – “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I

Songs like “Angels of Darkness” – all twenty gut-wrenching minutes of it – have a sense of space built into them. They are songs where slight variations of a theme produce tectonic shifts in the mood and momentum of the song.

Imidiwan: Companions

“Imidiwan” came out the year before Earth’s latest offering and Earth’s Dylan Carlson cited Tinariwen as an influence on “Angels of Darkness.” Tinariwen drone too, but they drone in a less self-conscious way than Earth. Their songs like “Tahiut In” feature languid and loping guitar riffs that inevitably circle back to a chorus. The songs on “Imidiwan” are more rhythmic but less percussive than Earth.

Tinariwen – “Tahiut In

Tinariwen always sounds like a group of friends getting together to play on a Saturday night. Although there are traces of sadness and outrage in the music, there is also an overwhelming feeling of communal healing in the music, a quality of finding strength in and through the music. Earth is saturated with a bleak darkness that Tinariwen lacks. I am convinced the difference comes from the difference in tempos and because there are no vocals on “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I.” The backing vocals on “Imidiwan” and all of Tinariwen’s records lend a hopeful almost joyous quality to the song regardless of the subject matter. The Tinariwen platter also lacks the drama of the Earth disc. Now, honestly, there is very little drama in Earth songs but it always seems to be lurking or at least happening off camera, if you will.

We are living in painful times – times that are painful economically, culturally and psychologically. This pain is evident in music from Saharan Africa and in Washington state even if the bands approaches to it differ.


Alpinist – “Lichtlærm/Minus.Mensch” Review

Alpinist - "Lichtlærm/Minus.Mensch"

Alpinist – “Lichtlærm/Minus.Mensch” (Southern Lord Recordings, 2011)

Hardcore and metal have been described as “outsider music for outsiders.” As you might expect given these philosophical similarities, both genres have influenced each other since the early 1980s. But the influence has been pretty one sided in the favor of metal, although hardcore bequeathed its tempos to metal to create thrash metal. For example, many hardcore aggregations have migrated to metal once they outgrew the (relatively) narrow confines of the genre. Bands who made that transition include Corrosion of Conformity and DRI to name just two. Very few bands have absorbed lesson from metal and used it to play punk. In fact, the best practitioners – Discharge and G.B.H. – were associated with one label: Clay Records.

That is until recently. These mighty bands have inspired a new generation of kids and led to the creation of an entire new subgenre of punk: Crust. Although they don’t sound like Discharge, these bands have been influenced by metal but brought this influence into a particularly punk and hardcore setting. It is not thrash metal, not by a long shot. Instead crust bands play a particular brand of metallic hardcore, if you will.

For example, take the band, Alpinist, a four piece from Munster, Germany. Their name refers to a person who practices a particular form of mountaineering. An alpinist scales the tops of the world quickly (because they carry fewer supplies) and without oxygen unlike Everest-style expeditions. In other words, an alpinist is a old school, ethical and heroic mountaineer. And, in the interest of carrying less, Southern Lord took the band’s first two long players – Minus.Mench (2009) and Lichtlærm (2010) – and combined them into a single, limited edition CD. Only 2000 copies were pressed.

What do you need to know about Alpinist? The bass player has a sledgehammer of a distortion pedal and he’s not afraid to use it; the guitar player likes down tuned riffs with octaves in them; the drummer provides the foundation of heavy punk rock action; and, the singer sounds like a ghost screaming at the living world.

The main characteristic of Lichtlærm/Minus.Mensch, though, is fury – furious in tone, furious in texture and furious in energy. They rage against “fascism, racism, sexism and homophobia” and, if you have a problem with that, they say simply, “Don’t listen to our music.”

Intrigued? Then check this out:

Alpinist – “Neverest”:

Did you hear the Black Metal influence mixed in with the rest of Alpinist’s heaviness? Where? The typical, high-pitched, spectral or wraith-like vocals. But then again I must admit at times the vocals remind me of Chris Doherty of Gang Green on the This Is Boston Not L.A. compilation (“I Got Rabies,” “Kill A Commie” and other classics). You can also hear a Black Metal-influenced tremolo picking on the guitar tracks on songs like “Neverest” and “Project Fatigue.”

The most interesting aspect of Lichtlærm/Minus.Mensch is how Alpinist take aspects of punk, hardcore and metal and transform it into their own raging manifesto. Get it before all 2000 copies are gone.

Earth – “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I” Review

Earth - "Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I"

Earth – “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I” (Southern Lord Recordings, 2011)

Some record labels seem to capture the zeitgeist of particular eras. Think about SST in the ‘80s or Sub Pop in the ‘90s (and if you want o carry it even further back – how about Sun Records in the 1950s or Stax in the 1960s). I am going to go out on a limb here – and this isn’t much of a risk, I must confess – and predict that Southern Lord Records will be the label of record for 2010s. You want proof? How about Pelican, Wolves in the Throne Room, Sunn O))) and Boris? Add the reunited and rejuvenated three-piece Corrosion of Conformity, the most bone-snapping, face-shredding band I’ve ever seen back when they were at a trio in 1985-86, to this impressive lineup and you have the uncompromising soundtrack to the Great Recession.

Earth is one of the keystones of Southern Lord’s roster. They pioneered the drone subgenre twenty years ago. Earth combined the doom style of The Melvins with the minimalism of the main riff of Sabbath’s song “Black Sabbath.” They then made the riffs even barer and slowed it down to a glacial pace. When I say glacial I mean ice ages came and went at a quicker tempo than most drone songs; it is not usual for the drummer in a drone band to hit the snare 30 times (or less) in a minute. The drone tag, however, comes from the repetition of the minimalist riff – sometimes just a single chord – over and over and over again.  It sounds like a recipe for boredom, right? In lesser hands, it might be but Earth uses the repetition as a foundation to build an interesting soundscape where the nature of repetition and subtle differences leads to a sonic gestalt. The sum is indeed greater than the individual parts.

Each Earth album has evinced a sparking evolution in the band’s sound. Along the way, the band ditched the speaker melting distortions and recast themselves as a contemplative genre-bendings – almost jazzy – combo that recently has featured Dylan Carlson’s country-influenced guitar sound. The constants through this evolution, though, have been everything is still played at a doom tempo with the drone-like repetition. The result on their most recent record, “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I” is a work that is not metal at all and yet it is, as Nick of “Nick’s Condensed Metal Reviews” wrote.

Earth – “Father Midnight“:

“Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I” is not for the impatient; there is no instant gratification here, no short cuts. The songs unfold gracefully and mournfully in what the French call the aesthetic of “duree” or duration. Earth takes a particular riff or melody and put it metaphorically under an electron microscope – the songs examine all the melodies’ constitute parts and looks at them from all possible angles as different instruments and sounds drift in and out. Although the album says there are five songs on it, they all actually in conversation with each other and they end up congealing into one unified “meta-song” – the pay off for having the patience to stick with the whole record. It is a remarkable and rewarding listening experience, a rarity these days.

Krallice – “Diotima” Review

Krallice - "Diotima"

Kralice – “Diotima” (Profound Lore Records, 2011)

These days many bands squawk and rave that they are influenced by Black Metal. The influence usually comes in two forms — either as slavish imitation that results in mind numbing and useless generic blackened metal or bands include a blast beat or two and some constipated, “spectral” vocals because our sub-genre carries some cache of coolness right now (I can’t believe I just typed those words). In other words, few aggregations use Black Metal to build something new and uniquely their own. Krallice, a Brooklyn-based super group, is one of the exceptions. Their new album, “Diotima,” takes the blueprint laid down by Darkthrone and other early 1990s Norwegian Black Metal groups and builds something distinctive, exciting and skull crushing.

What sets Krallice and “Diotima,” their third album, apart from the legions of uninspired Black Metal practitioners? It bludgeons the listener – something that very few Black Metal-influenced records do. What makes it so heavy? Krallice’s dense, intricate and savage sound. The term “wall of sound” is overused but it fits perfectly for the album’s interweaving of tremolo-picked guitar and blast beat drumming. The result is a disc that is as relentless and intense as the Swans or Einsturzende Neubauten even though Krallice isn’t a noise band. Don’t think Black Metal can hammer you? Check out “The Clearing”:

Krallice – “The Clearing”

I wasn’t lying, right? It is unrelentingly urgent; Krallice doesn’t give you a chance to catch your breath. Krallice and “Diotima” challenge you to wake up from the comfortable stupor of your everyday fugue and break shit. Grab it when it comes out on April 26th.

Black Breath – “Razor to Oblivion” EP Review

Black Breath - "Razor to Oblivion" EP

Black Breath – “Razor to OblivionEP (Southern Lord Recordings, 2009)

Last week a friend recommended that I check out a band named Black Breath because they sounded like a bastard love child of an unique and unholy love triangle between Crucifix, Motorhead and the mighty Discharge, three of my favorite bands. I replied – rather petulantly, I might add – that I didn’t need a group that sounded like these aggregations because I saw Crucifix’s only incendiary show in Atlanta in 1983, I played pinball with Lemmy (like millions of other people), and I still had all of my Discharge 45s and LPs from way back in the day. What use did I have for a bunch of dudes who sounded like them?

But I am always on the look out for new music to review here at Pitch Black Brigade so . . . I went to iTunes and typed in “Black Breath.” Just as an aside, do y’all remember when finding good music was an arduous task? I was faced with two choices for Black Breath in ye olde iTunes store: an EP or an album. I chose the EP because I don’t get paid to write this blog. I don’t even get the music for free; I buy the albums I review. I do it for fun and, like most things that are fun, it’s a money-losing proposition. So I was cheap, I admit it, and bought the EP.

Black Breath are a bunch of lads from Bellingham, Washington. They began playing together in 2005. In 2008, they recorded and released “Razor to Oblivion” EP on their own label, Hot Mass Records. The EP’s relentless and crushing tracks came to the attention of the mighty label Southern Lord and Southern Lord took over distribution of “Razor to Oblivion” and signed Black Breath. Listening to the EP, it is easy to understand why Southern Lord was interested in signing them. Let me tell you that metallic-edged punk like Discharge and the immortal three-piece Corrosion of Conformity pioneered ain’t dead.

Black Breath – “Razor to Oblivion”

“Razor to Oblivion” is one smoking unrelenting record. There is no messing around here – just straight ahead, skull-crushing rock. And it is as heavy as the steel plating used to build battleships. The first song, “Razor to Oblivion,” features a riff that sounds like it was left over from Motorhead’s “Overkill” sessions. While the EP’s third song, “Beneath the Crust,” busts out homage – a direct quote – from what we use to call “Peace Punk” greats Crucifix’s “Prejudice” at the 1:10 mark of the song.

I owe my friend an apology for my sarcastic reply to their recommendation – I really enjoyed “Razor to Oblivion.” I don’t mind that Black Breath wore their influences on their sleeve on this EP because the disc is the sound of a band gradually developing their own sound. They took bits and pieces of this and that and threw them into the cauldron and now they are working through them and slowly they will emerge with their own sound and direction. In fact “Razor to Oblivion” made me want to go out and get “Heavy Breathing,” their first LP, to see what the band was up to now.

Grayceon – “All We Destroy” Review

Grayceon - "All We Destory"

Grayceon – “All We Destroy” (Profound Lore Records, 2011)

I have ranted and raved, wept and wailed like a bug-eating Old Testament prophet in this blog about my fear that the life and creativity has been bleached out of metal these days. Yes, there are a handful of folks that are pushing the boundaries but, let’s face it, there are a lot of bands churning out generic insert-your-favorite-metal-subgenre here. Tell me if this sounds familiar: One day a band comes along and releases a slab of vinyl that rampages like a tornado through metal’s trailer park. Unfortunately, after this brief storm of creativity and inspiration, we are doomed to ten years of 463 uninspired groups that exist only to recreate the sound and songs of band x. This is not a formula for innovation, it is a recipe for mediocrity.

My frustration with this stagnation has, in fact, influenced my posting here on Pitch Black Brigade. I have found it difficult recently to marshall the energy and interest to listen to another turgid, generic metal record (not to name names but . . . something like Gorgoroth, for example). And just when I have consigned myself to the fact the I will be forever condemned to listen to songs like Gorgoroth’s “Procreating Satan” (which, I suggest, should instead be called “Doing Satan’s Mom”) an album comes along restore my faith in the diversity of the genre with its dizzying creativity and energy. What record has been balm for my tired and cynical soul? Grayceon’s latest, “All We Destroy.”

Grayceon are a trio from the wailing wilds of Jack Kerouac and Japhy Ryder country, San Francisco. Max Doyle, guitar, Zack Farwell, drums, and Jackie Perez  Gratz, cello, started playing together in 2006. “All We Destroy” is there third long player.

It is just about impossible to slap a label on Grayceon’s sound. How many bands can you say that about? Folks stumble all over themselves when they try to pin down Grayceon’s  sound because have to reach for 5 or 6 genres or subgenres to even come close to it. So here’s my contribution to the game of pin-the-tail on Grayceon: West Coast Hopscotch Melodic Technical Cello Metal. Why? They are from California, their tempos skitter in interesting and inspired ways like someone playing an difficult game of hopscotch, they are melodic as hell, they bust out prog-like arrangements and chops, they sport an down-tuned, electric cello and, finally, they can be as heavy as a truck load of cinder blocks.

“Shellmounds,” the second song on “All We Destroy,” is a handy 8-minute primer to the dynamics of the band’s music. The song explores what happens when a jaunty folk metal-like riff is rammed head first into Grayceon’s hopscotch tempos before being sunk into the band’s more familiar sludge-like pace.

Grayceon – “Shellmounds”

The highlight of the album is the 17-minute long “We Can.” It is sprawling, soaring melodic sludge. They build an intense and dramatic song based on layers of heaviness and melody, repetition and difference, and the contrast between piano and forte. “We Can” is cinematic in scope like a soundtrack to an intense but lyrical foreign film. I can only compare it in attitude and interest to Sonic Youth. I’m not saying Grayceon sound like the Youth but that both bands are interested in the same things: heaviness and melody. And they both go about twinning these two obsessions together in ways that are different from each other and different from other bands regardless of genre or style.

It’s only February, I know, but “All We Destroy” is already my front runner for album of the year. Why? Because I know no matter what comes out during the rest of the year, I won’t hear another album that sounds like it. And that is a pretty singular achievement in these derivative times.

Korpiklaani – More Songs about Saunas and Drinking

Korpiklaani - "Karkelo"

Korpiklaani – “Karkelo” (Nuclear Blast, 2009)

In order to celebrate the release of Korpiklanni’s new album next week, I am reviewing their last long player, “Karkelo” (“Party”). Why? Because my brother-in-law, Joe, recently brought this CD back all the way from Finland for me. Thanks, Joe!

Korpiklaani’s story is pretty well known. They started as a house band at a restaurant playing traditional folk music that featured yoik singing in the Sami language and synthesizers churning out relentless hummpa-based rhythms. They were getting by but there was no danger of them turning into rock stars or even making a decent living doing it.  Then one day, Finntroll came to town and the rest, as they say, is history: The dudes chucked the yoik-ing, traded the synthesizers for accordion and fiddle, threw down some cash for a couple of Marshall stacks, changed their name to Korpiklaani, or “Forest Clan,” and became a folk metal band. “Karkelo” is their sixth album.

You can still hear the influence of humppa in their music. Humppa, a style of Finnish dance hall music from the 1950s, reinterpreted the old foxtrots and polkas from the 1920s and 1930s into a new hyperkinetic context. The tempo of humppa songs is fast – as fast as thrash – two beats per bar or approximately 220-260 beats per minute. Humppa is the reason why Korpiklaani are more successful outside of their home country. Outside of Finland they are thought of as almost a thrash folk metal band. Inside Finland, though, they know the truth – the tempos aren’t thrash; they are foxtrots revved up to warp speed. In fact, Korpiklaani are considered “old peoples’ music with heavy metal guitars” in Finland.*

The chorus of the album’s second song, “Eramaan Arjyt,” is the closest they get to hummpa hyperactive madness on “Karkelo”

Lyrically, Korpiklaani sing the praises of drinking, drinking some more, saunas and humppa. Here is the liner note description of “Eramaan Arjyt”: “This song describes what is best for a Finnish man in the style of a newer folk song. And what can be better than forest, sauna, lovely girls, humppa and more sahti than you can ever drink. Sahti is a strong Finnish beer made in the province of Hame. Lyrics contain many words and structures from the Western Finnish dialects.” This description summarizes Korpiklaani’s entire oeuvre; they don’t stray from these themes.

The song, “Vodka,” will give you a pretty good introduction to their body of work

Several reviewers saw “Karkelo” as some kind of departure from Korpiklaani’s previous work because of some of the slower more folk influenced like “Mettanpeiton Valtiaalle.” But, remember, they started as a folks band so how can folk songs be a surprising and unnerving departure?

Korpiklaani are the AC/DC of folk metal: they know what they are good at and they don’t stray from that formula. Pick up “Karkelo” and join the party.

Categories: Folk Metal Tags: ,